The Sport of Collectibles

The Daily News / Tom Van Riper
August, 2005

To Brandon Steiner, building a valuable portfolio in sports memorabilia means following your heart.

"The key to collecting is to get what you love, then expand from there," said Steiner, who in 1987 turned his personal passion for autographs, photos and game-used equipment into Steiner Sports. It is a leading dealer in the area that has a multi-year partnership to market Yankee memorabilia.

Decorations abound at his company's New Rochelle headquarters, including a game bat signed by the 2004 champion Red Sox and an old newspaper dispenser holding the final issue of "The National," an all-sports daily that had a brief run in the early '90s.

"I paid $500 for that, it's a great piece," Steiner said. It's also typical of an item that a small sports investor can put into his collection.

Michael Goering, a 48-year-old tax manager at Fuji Film in Westchester, has spent years grabbing up autographed pictures and baseballs from the 1960s Yankee teams of his youth. He began his collection which includes signatures of Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson and Yogi Berra purely for his own pleasure. It's just a nice bonus that it's now worth about $10,000.

"I don't speculate, I do it for my own enjoyment," said Goering, a Bronx native who, as a 13-year-old, picked Mantle's middle name, Charles, as his confirmation name.

That's a healthy approach to collecting, Steiner said, because the business can be hit or miss.

Even the price of some of the greatest names in sports have seen the value of their merchandise decline. A Wayne Gretzky jersey, for example, fetched over $1,000 when he retired, but is now selling for closer to $600.

Similarly, a jersey from Michael Jordan when he retired sold for close to $3,000. Now, a seller would probably get closer to $2,000 to $2,500, Steiner said.

The sports collectibles business has grown to over $1 billion, experts estimate, with many players happily dabbling in the minor leagues of collecting owning a few pieces here and there to connect them to their favorite teams and players.

Just as with a stock brokerage account, a small investor can easily get started on a collectibles portfolio with $1,000 or less. There's plenty out there besides famous million-dollar home run balls from Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds.

A solid small-scale buy, according to Steiner, is a memento that marks a great moment, or that tells the story of a particular era. For example, $199 buys a shot of Bobby Thomson's famous 1951 pennant-winning home run for the New York Giants off Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers, complete with both men's signatures.

And sometimes an "era" passes almost unnoticed, leaving it to the savviest collectors to snap up a good piece while it's still cheap. Steiner displayed a 1998 World Series picture of Derek Jeter slapping hands with Paul O'Neill in the on-deck circle, which he valued at $600. While it was a routine photo just a few years ago, the ensuing gradual changes in the Yankee roster has since rendered it a classic.

"It captures the appreciation of Yankee fans of those two as key catalysts during that period," Steiner said. He added that while established stars are the blue-chip buys, promising young players are the dot-com stocks of the late '90s - boom or bust.

"People got caught up in the hype with Robinson Cano after a good half-season," Steiner said about prices for his signature and equipment getting bid up this year.

For anyone who's saved old Sports Illustrated covers, like the one showing the Celtics-Lakers 1985 NBA championship round or Muhammad Ali's 1964 knockout of Sonny Liston - hang onto them. And don't throw out those '80s-era Air Jordan sneakers, or any old typewriters or rotary phones. Those symbols of yesteryear have value, according to Steiner.

Dealers like his or Gotta Have It! in Manhattan can appraise items for those looking to see what their old collectibles are worth.

Robert Schagrin, Gotta Have It's co-owner, agreed that big names work best, but far more for past stars like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle than for Jeter or Alex Rodriguez, who came of age after the memorabilia boom had begun.

"Today's players sign so much, the market is pretty saturated," Schagrin said. He considers the true gold standard to be old-time stars whose autographs are relatively rare Babe Ruth, the Beatles, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein items have done nothing but rise over the years.

"Vintage is better than current market," Schagrin said, noting that teams chasing every last dollar of revenue routinely pour commemorative tickets and trinkets into the marketplace after a championship.

Some value-conscious fans now save everything from tickets to programs making them less rare and, therefore, less valuable. So while a ticket [not just a stub] of a 1965 Beatles concert in good condition is worth big bucks, one for a recent World Series game probably isn't. That's especially true since the high-tech age started bringing ticket scanners to the sports and music venues, resulting in many more untorn tickets lying around.

And New Yorkers can take heart in the fact that their city's sports and entertainment history dwarfs all others when it comes to valuable memorabilia with Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles the only cities visible in the rear view mirror.


Leave a comment